WEST CHESTER >> The ball was on the ground.
As soon as it touched the turf at West Chester East, the PIAA 3A boys lacrosse game between La Salle and Manheim Township hung in the balance. Advantages awaited whichever team managed to grab the ground ball, so it naturally drew a crowd.
The ball bounced free of the scrum to Grayson Sallade, who gathered it up and connected on a highlight-worthy shot to put Manheim Township up two.
Two minutes and forty-five seconds later, Sallade hurled his stick and gloves into the air, joining a parade of Blue Streaks teammates as they celebrated their 6-4 win over the Explorers.
“We were pushing up from X pretty hard, they stick-checked pretty hard where the ball came out and it fell into a scrum, I think two of our guys and two of their guys,” Sallade, a University of Virginia recruit, said. “Luckily, someone batted it out, I got it and went to the middle and there was nobody there because they were ready to clear so it was wide open and I was able to put it over the goalie’s shoulder.”
Manheim Township became the first team from outside District I or 12 to win a state lacrosse title on Saturday and in doing so, denied La Salle its first state championship since 2013. The Blue Streaks got a tremendous defensive effort led by goalie Caton Johnson, a North Carolina recruit, who made 10 saves.
For the Explorers, who had been playing excellent team lacrosse all through the postseason, something seemed amiss once Saturday’s game started. While the Explorers all credited Manheim Township for being the better team on the day, they felt they also didn’t deliver their best game.
“I thought they played better in every fashion, we didn’t play a great game today and I’m not sure who that was exactly today on our side,” La Salle coach Bill Leahy said. “They were good, and all congratulations to Manheim but it was frustrating.”
Sallade said he and his teammates were ready for La Salle’s methodical pace to the game and the Blue Streaks showed they could hang that way as well, working the ball patiently on offense. Both sides had long spells of possession which was a testament to both defenses not giving anything easy but also both offenses playing patiently.
Brendan Meagher started the scoring in the first quarter and his goal with 4:13 left in the second quarter sent the teams into the break at a 2-2 deadlock with Manheim Township’s Eddie Newman striking twice for the District 3 champions in the first half.
“I don’t know what it was, I guess at the end of the day we’re still teenagers in high school and some days you just don’t have it,” Meagher said. “Maybe it was just one of those days for us. Our coaches did a great job of getting us ready for their defense, I think were they got us was offensively, they controlled the ball great. They possessed it so well and we were expecting them to play a lot faster.”
Sallade put the Blue Streaks up 3-2 with 9:22 left in the third quarter, giving Manheim Township a lead it wouldn’t lose the rest of the way. Zach Diamond pushed it out to a two-goal lead about four minutes later and the Explorers were then fighting a major uphill battle.
Matt Clibanoff pulled a goal back for La Salle at the end of the quarter but noted there were a lot of areas the Explorers weren’t winning.
“Ground balls, winning a faceoff draw, maybe even kicking a ball into open space, those are all things that separate a team from being a champion,” Clibanoff said. “I don’t think we got slowed down, but (Johnson) had everyone’s number. When you have opportunities that present themselves, you have to finish. That’s what it comes down, even in school, the classroom, when you have an opportunity, you must finish it.”
Bryce Hutchinson scored what would be the game-winner with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter for a 5-3 lead. Johnson was outstanding in net, making several difficult saves and stops on a couple of point-blank takes.
Sallade played a lot of two-way lacrosse, saying he normally isn’t out for defensive possessions but just felt compelled to keep himself on the field. It gave him a pretty good view of his teammate’s play between the posts.
“He’s the best goalie in the state,” Sallade said of Johnson. “He just makes playing defense so easy. He saves 90 percent of the shots that go to him. He’s my best friend and I believe he’s the best goalie in the state.”
Ethan LaMond cut the lead to 5-4 with 3:40 left, giving La Salle a glimmer of hope so long as it could find a way to get the ball back. That chance came with a shade less than three minutes left when the Explorers dislodged the ball.
Defenseman Joe Burnham found himself in the middle of the scrum chasing that pivotal ground ball.
“It was loose, we had numbers there but we weren’t in a good enough position that if they were to pick it up, it was a straight shot at the goal and we were set if we picked it up, we would have been able to clear it, so it’s a case where you have to get the ground ball or you’re going to give up something big,” Burnham said. “We do drills like that in practice all the time. We just couldn’t win it when it was important.”
The ball was on the ground.
“It’s hard to explain,” Sallade said. “It’s hard to explain how much we put into this. Not a lot of people understand what we do, the grit our team has, the belief, the trust in each other. We wanted it so bad and we came out and delivered it.”
MANHEIM TOWNSHIP 1 1 2 2 – 6
LA SALLE 1 1 1 1 – 4
Goals-Assists: MT – Grayson Sallade 2-0, Eddie Newman 2-0, Zach Diamond 1-0, Bryce Hutchinson 1-0; L – Brendan Meagher 2-0, Matt Clibanonff 1-0, Ethan LaMond 1-0, Joe Taylor 0-1, Rob Foster 0-1. Saves: MT – Caton Johnson 10; L – Michael Clibanoff 4